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The Future of Pharma and How to Talk About It

By: Kelley Talbot

You’re deep in a game of “antidepressant roulette.” You’ve tried three different prescriptions for depression. You’ve changed dosages. The process takes months. You don’t feel better; in fact, you feel worse. And you’re losing hope.

A new tool that may help patients searching for the appropriate medication is gaining ground: Pharmacogenetics.

On Thursday, MATTER brought together leaders from NorthShore University HealthSystems to talk about how this emerging field is remaking medicine here in Chicago and around the world. In a roomful of health innovators, Mark Dunnenberger and Kamalakar Gulukota, both from NorthShore, discussed what the emerging field means for patients and some of the challenges in turning the potential into reality.

NorthShore’s Mark Dunnenberger at MATTER

Last year, NorthShore established one of the first hospital-based pharmacogenomics clinics of its kind to build on this potential. Others are beginning to follow suit.

In part because people’s DNA varies, their response to the same drug may vary. Analyzing a cheek swab or saliva sample can help a doctor better understand which drug, at what dosage, has the best chance of working for a specific patient. The results can also help doctors choose drugs that will minimize side effects and maximize safety for each patient.

All of this could make it more appealing and easier for patients to take their medicine, helping address the sticky challenge of patient adherence. Unlike other tests, the results are also true for a person’s entire life. And – at least for now at NorthShore – it’s affordable, with patients not paying more than $450.

Challenges for Communicators

Despite the exciting potential of pharmacogenetics, both Dunnenberger and Gulukota emphasized the challenge of raising clinicians’ awareness that the tools are available and relevant for their patients.  They also emphasized the importance of getting results to doctors and patients at the right time, in the right place, and in language they can digest quickly. Dunnenberger acknowledged that misunderstanding about what pharmacogenetics can and can’t do is common and they’ve needed to push back against the hype.

They’ve also had to distill the test results down to the simplest, most actionable information to encourage doctors to use them. The need to create multiple iterations of reports, redesigning them to include more visuals and fewer sentences, has been essential to clinicians’ increasing willingness to refer to the results. Dunnenberger noted that even “two full sentences of information” was too much for clinicians to review. Gulukota noted that integrating the information into doctors’ existing workflow and platforms – so they don’t need to log into a separate system – has been critical. They’re continuing to refine this aspect of the clinic, and are also improving the portability of the results that patients receive. 

All of this leaves health communications professionals with valuable information and opportunities to contribute. Clinicians’ need for actionable information presented in formats that can be read at a glance continues to become increasingly pressing, as they juggle too much information with too little time. Health communications professionals can play essential roles in ensuring that opportunities to improve health outcomes don’t fall by the wayside because of poor design or integration.